Thereafter

*Movellas Advent Calendar 2014!* *NaNoWriMo 2014* *First Draft* ©Molly Looby There are always a host of flowers on the side of the road, whether brand new or shrivelled from weeks of rest. Their appearance, though sad, was never odd. So when another wave of flowers showed up on the outskirts of my home town, I didn't pay much attention apart from a deep aching sadness within. It was only upon mentioning it in passing I realised something was wrong. I spoke to everyone but to no avail. Maybe I was going crazy but . . . I was the only one who could see the flowers.

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11. Eleven

After the initial shock of being believed, even if it was only by a voice in my little half-sister’s head, I realised how stupid I was being. Of course Grace said that Winnie could see the flowers. She wanted to believe me because I had believed her and she hadn’t wanted to lie. She was good like that. Too good.

Nathan and I got out of our core maths exam at the same time the next day, the first and last columns being let out first. I felt a little sorry for the people with surnames in the middle of the alphabet. Though not that sorry as I was always in the first column, meaning I had to watch everyone file in after me. Occasionally someone would trip up on the rug they put across the sports hall to stop the floor from scratching. I was glad if I ever tripped up no one else would see it at least.

“I’m gonna have to repeat the year,” Nathan said, pulling on his favourite grey beanie hat as he spotted me in the crowd gathering outside the doors.

“Stop being so hard on yourself. You said that last year.”

“But last year was easy in comparison to this.”

“You’ll be fine, drama queen.”

When I started to walk past the car park, Nathan grabbed my arm.

“Wait. Where are you going? Your car’s over there.”

“I’m not going home yet.”

“Okay.” He let go. “I might as well walk around with you then. Where are we going?”

I bit my lip. “You won’t like it.”

“I think I know where this is going,” he groaned.

“I’m going back to the Welcome to Suddich sign to pick a new flower.”

“Why?”

“Because it doesn’t make sense.” I didn’t want to admit that I was hoping that Zed would appear like last time and he could answer some of my questions. “Still want to come?”

“Yeah. I’m not letting you dance across the road on your own.”

“I don’t dance.”

“Wander, whatever. And anyway, I want to see you pick this imaginary flower.”

I ignored him as we walked on. He babbled on about the exam and various questions on it. He moaned that he could do all the method but was then sure his answer was wrong most of the time.

He stopped once we reached the road. “How do you propose we get across this bitch?”

“We go this way.” I pointed anti-clockwise. “Less traffic goes this way. You just have to be patient and wait for a gap.”

“You scare me, Abia Angel. How can I share so much of my DNA with you?”

“I ask myself the same question all the time.”

I gripped his hand as we waited for our gap and then sprinted across. It was much easier this time. It was a mix of familiarity, not carrying my heavy rucksack, and hope. And of course this time there was no idiot in a van threatening my life with his speeding.

By the time we got to the correct side, we were panting, resting our hands on our knees to try and catch our breath. It wasn’t that the distance was far, it was that with the added fear, running a few metres at a time dodging cars, took it out of you.

“Okay,” Nathan said as he returned to full height. “Now I want a full report of this phenomenon. Can you see the flowers from here?”

“No,” I huffed as I pushed my fringe from my eyes. “The sign’s further up than you think.”

“So you’ve gotta tell me as soon as you can see them,” he said as we began to walk.

“Okay,” I agreed.

He was quiet for a moment, the cars rushing past sounding too loud and dangerous right there next to us. We walked as far away from the road as possible but it still felt too close. Somehow last time, I had failed to notice just how much danger I could’ve been in on this stretch of grass.

“Tell me,” Nathan said after about a minute. “How did Zed follow you?”

“You think I know?”

“What exactly happened?”

“I was walking along here and when I got to the flowers, he was behind me.”

“You didn’t feel him following you, watching you?”

“No, not at all. Though I was pretty distracted.” We walked in silence for another minute until I caught sight of the splodge of colour in the distance. “I can see them. Just.”

“Excellent.”

“Just for curiosity’s sake, can you see anything?”

He squinted and screwed his face up. “Nope. Nothing. Just what I think is the sign. Sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter. I was just wondering.”

As we continued, I kept checking behind me for sight of a tall, skinny red-head but there was nothing.

“He’s not going to show up, Abz, don’t worry.” Nathan mistook my anxiety for fear rather than longing. He nudged me and smirked. “If he was gonna follow you today he’s now seen the size of your butch cousin and decided he wants to live.”

I chuckled. “I’m sure.”

The walk took longer than I remembered, though last time I’d ran to meet the flowers. This time they were taunting me, laughing. I felt a tightness in my stomach and the desire to rip each petal off one by one.

“Really, nothing?” I asked, still after two weeks of this battle unable to believe he couldn’t see something right in front of him.

“Nothing at all. Just there?” He pointed. “At the bottom of the sign?”

“Yeah.”

“No, I can just see the grass, like the pictures on your phone.”

“This is too weird,” I whispered.

“You don’t say.”

We arrived at the flowers and I had to pull Nathan back to stop him crushing the first lot.

“They’re here?”

“Yeah.” I bent down and picked another orange chrysanthemum.

“Have you picked one?”

“Yes. Can you see it?”

“Nothing but your empty hands, Abz.”

“Guess what flower it is?”

“What?”

“Please. Just guess.”

“Is it a rose?” He shrugged.

“No.” I sighed, more disappointment filling me up than I was expecting. “I thought that might work.”

“This is so weird. There’s a flower in your hand?”

“Yeah.”

“What would happen if I picked one?”

“I dunno.”

He grinned. “I reckon we gotta test this out.”

“Okay.” I felt a smile pull at my mouth. “Hold your hands together and close your eyes. I’m not going to tell you when I give you this.”

He did as I said and I dropped the chrysanthemum into his thick hands, holding my breath.

“I haven’t got all day, Abz.”

I swallowed. “You’re already holding it.”

“I am?”

“Yeah. You can’t feel a thing?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay, let’s try this.” I wasn’t hopeful but we weren’t leaving here without exhausting everything. “I’ll describe the flower to you and you picture it in your head and then open your eyes.”

“Okay, sounds reasonable. I’d love to share this delusion with you.”

“Me too. So it’s a chrysanthemum, do you know what they look like?”

“Nope. Good start.”

“Shut up. You’ll have to bear with me. Words aren’t my forte.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

“Focus. It’s the one that has loads and loads of petals. They’re long and skinny, the petals I mean. They’re all coming out from the middle all close together. The ones on the outside aren’t as closely packed at the ones in the centre, they’re more separated. And this one’s an orange-red in the middle and it goes orange peel orange and then to a sort of gold.”

“I kinda have an image. No idea if it’s what you’re seeing though.”

“Okay then, are you focusing?”

“With all my energy.”

“Open your eyes.”

He did and he looked down to his hands before meeting my gaze, that sad pity look I was growing to know so well on his face.

“It doesn’t matter.” I waved my hand to signify brushing past it. “Let’s try it with a flower you actually know.”

“Okay.”

I took the chrysanthemum out of his hand and clamped it between my head and my glasses stem for safe keeping. I then picked a white rose out of a packet further up. The stem was still intact and it had leaves on it too. I placed it in Nathan’s hand. He gave no reaction so I jabbed him with a thorn. He didn’t even flinch.

But that didn’t make sense.

I pricked my own finger and swore as it pierced the skin.

“You alright?”

“No. This is getting weirder.”

“How can it get any weirder?” He laughed. “I thought we were at full capacity.”

“Me too.”

“So what’s next?”

“This time it’s a white rose, stem and all, leaves and everything. Perfect white. Not a mark on it. Like it’s been down here two minutes.”

Everything seemed to blur and then snap back into focus. How had I not noticed? No. It’d been two weeks. They couldn’t all be here perfect as the day they were bought. Flowers died. That was out of the control of any person. No flowers looked this pristine after a few days, let alone two weeks.

Did that mean they couldn’t possibly be real? But I could see them, touch them, smell them. I was sure I could taste them too though I had no desire to. Maybe I was imagining this. Maybe there was something wrong with me.

Though that didn’t explain Zed, but nothing did.

“Abz? Can I look?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “Go ahead.”

“Damn it,” he growled when he opened his eyes. “I was really trying that time, Abz. I even believed and everything.”

“That’s okay,” my voice was flat. “None of this is making any sense.”

“How can this be happening?” he stomped into the middle of the flowers. “It can’t be, can it?”

I shook my head. Though he’d tramped a few, they all sprung back into place like he hadn’t. So they were reacting to Nathan but Nathan wasn’t reacting to them. That was even madder than if they’d gone right through his shoe like a hologram.

It was crazy that a hologram wasn’t even the answer. It was as though this patch of flowers existed for me in every single way and they knew it but they didn’t for Nathan and they wouldn’t. I tiptoed over to the edge of the flowers and raised my foot above a packet of pink tulips. A rush of sickness crawled into my stomach and I had the urge to vomit as I brought my foot crashing down on the nearest innocent bud.

“No.” I shook my head. “How is this happening?”

The flower jumped right back up unharmed like the ones Nathan had trodden on. I felt tears hot and violent clog up my throat as I brought my foot down again and again, crying out as I stomped. I scraped the petals against the ground to break them but nothing. The grass underneath them came out of the ground and flattened under my foot but the flower itself was unharmed.

“Abz!” Nathan grabbed my shoulders and forced me to look into his face. “What’re you doing?”

“They won’t die! They just won’t die! They’re as new as if they’d just appeared. You’re crushing them and I’m crushing them and nothing’s happening!”

He looked down at his feet before gazing back at me. “Abz, there’s nothing there.”

“You know I can see them, Nay!”

“Look at me.”

I did. Right into his soft blue almond shaped eyes.

“There are no flowers here. There have been in the past but not for a long while now. Not in this spot.”

“But–”

“No. There’s nothing. You can’t kill them because they’re not there. I can’t feel them because they’re not there. They’re not there.”

“It’s not that easy, Nay.” I tried to break free from his grasp.

He just gripped me tighter. “Everything I’m saying to you makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“Yes but–”

“Then why can’t you trust me?”

“I do but–”

“Abia. Trust me.”

“You think I want to see them!” I was screaming it. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. “You think I want something this stupid to haunt my every waking thought? You think I asked for this?”

“Abia . . .”

“Something’s wrong with me, Nathan. Something big. Something bad.”

And there they were. Grace’s words from the day before.

“That’s not true. This will go away and everything will be fine.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

“Then you’ll have to learn to ignore it.”

“What if it just gets worse and worse and worse?”

“How?”

“I don’t know.” I sniffed. “I don’t want to think about it.”

“Well it won’t.”

I tried to pull away again. “How can you know that?”

He pressed his lips together in a line. “I just do. I’m a smart-arse remember?”

“Nathan.” I shook my head from side to side and the chrysanthemum fell from my glasses, brushing off Nathan’s arm before resting on the ground again. He didn’t blink as it touched him. I stared at his arm. His hair didn’t even stand on end or anything. He really couldn’t feel it. “What do I do?”

“You need to calm down and stop panicking. What will people driving past think?”

“They’ll think I’m insane but that’s okay because I am. I mean, I must be right? And it’s not that easy to stop a person panicking. I . . . I can’t even think straight anymore. I wish I was back in that maths exam.”

“Okay, now you’re insane.” He smiled and pulled me into one of his big bear Nathan hugs.

“I don’t know what to do now,” I mumbled into his t-shirt. “I don’t know what to think. There’s nothing more I can do or think.”

“I know what you have to do.” He pulled away, kissing my forehead, something he’d never done before. I don’t know if it made me feel awkward or safe but I was glad he’d done it. “You have to come home with me and I’ll make you a huge mug of tea and then we’ll play video games until it gets dark. Yes?”

“Yes.” I nodded.

“Good.” He took my hand and as we went away, I noticed something.

“Wait.” I snatched my hand back and crept towards the flowers.

“Abz, come on, enough for today.”

There was, like there always had been, a patch of grass and a patch of grass filled with flowers of all shapes and colours in different wrapping with different labels. But the patch of green in front of the flowers was blank again. The white rose with the stem and the leaves wasn’t there. Neither was the orange chrysanthemum that’d fallen from my glasses just a few minutes ago.

When I’d checked the car park this morning for Monday’s chrysanthemum I hadn’t thought for a minute that it’d returned to the plant. I assumed it had just blown away and hadn’t thought anything more of it.

This, like the whole freaking phenomenon as Nathan had put it, didn’t make sense.

I crouched down to take a closer look and could see no disturbance in the flowers. I moved some of the chrysanthemum bulbs out of the way but each stem had its flower. There wasn’t a single one missing.

The flower I had picked had reattached itself like I’d never picked it. Like I’d never existed at all.

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